For more than a century, 8 March has been known as International Women’s Day - the day to commemorate and celebrate the struggles of working and poor women against exploitation at work, in society and at home. Over the years, however, its meaning has been distorted.
In the Stalinist states claiming, falsely, to be socialist, it became the day to pay lip-service to the contribution working women make to society. (Men were expected to buy flowers and do the washing up for one day!) In capitalist countries, the day has become a commercial opportunity, like Valentine’s Day, for money to be made from promoting the idea of gifts, cards, clothes, romantic meals out.
Around March 8th, the media in different countries carry various items - some useful and some spurious - about women’s plight in modern-day society. Many deal with women’s oppression as if it originates with men, rather than being the product of a society divided into classes and based on inequalities of power and wealth. Across the world, many men are still socialised to see their role as superior to that of women, both within and outside the family.
This year the so-called ’fourth wave’ of feminism gets an airing but fails to offer a way out of the very practical problems of the women workers and poor farmers who make up half of the world’s population.
For socialists, International Women’s Day is for remembering how much has changed and how much remains to be done. Through struggle, some of the worst aspects of women’s inequality have been alleviated. It is also salutary, however, to remember how far there is to go and how socialists can make a difference.
Reform and lack of reform
Great reforms were won in the 20th century in many countries - political, social and reproductive rights, job opportunities and pay, access to education, the provision of health and social services. Many of the changes gave women greater choices in life. Along with the development of affordable labour-saving domestic appliances, they lightened the load of domestic drudgery which, in class society, falls unequally on their shoulders.
Sometimes, as in Russia in 1917, reforms came as a direct result of revolution. Elsewhere, as in Europe after the Second World War and even in Asia, state provisions in terms of health and educational provisions arose from the threat of revolution. Sometimes advances were gained through effective movements involving women - especially trade union action - with women and men together, specific political agitation and mass demonstrations.
On the other hand, life for women in rural communities in many parts of the world has been unchanged for centuries. Theirs is a life of endless toil - tilling the land, bearing children and caring for the whole family. They often have no access to maternity or health care and lose their babies at birth or in the first five years of their lives. Millions of women themselves die from preventable illness and disease, often connected with child-birth.
In so many countries women are regarded as second class citizens and forced, by tradition and religion, to obey fathers, husbands and brothers. They can enjoy little or no education, recreation or health care.
Because family wealth is often passed on only through the male line, and daughters are seen as a burden, millions of females are ’selected’ out of existence before they are born, or very soon afterwards. The latest estimate for the number ’missing’ females world-wide is 117 million (New Internationalist, October 2013). Three quarters are accounted for by pre-birth ’selection’ and one quarter by infanticide or discriminatory neglect before the age of five. This phenomenon is most prevalent in India and China, but happens on every continent.
So too does Female Genital Mutilation. Recent press coverage of campaigns in schools, helping young girls to resist this barbarous practice, indicates that more than 140 million women in the world have been ’cut’. Campaigns in Britain and France, for example, are having an effect, but how many more millions of women are denied the chance of ever experiencing sexual pleasure by the odious tradition of ’cutting’?
How can attitudes be changed?
Are women from every continent condemned to a life of perpetual hardship and degradation? Amnesty International ’s latest magazine covering a sample of problems faced by women in just eight countries - Bahrein, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Cambodia - certainly give that impression.
In the teeming cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America, tens of millions of women labour long hours in factory sweat-shops or on market stalls - risking their lives and limbs. Female market porters of Accra sleep on the ground at night, huddled together for protection. Dalit women in India have the job of cleaning latrines with their bare hands, others are forced to do manual scavenging. In a campaign to break the link between occupation and caste, women in Patna have raised their voices, thrown their baskets onto bonfires and refused to do this work. Campaigning on many issues affecting women has led to some reforms but the only way to get real improvements is through mass action and political struggle.
After the Rana Plaza disaster of April last year, when more than 1,100 textile workers were killed and 4,000 more injured and left jobless, the workers, who are mostly women, staged noisy and effective protests to demand compensation and new jobs. Their action brought into the spotlight the massive profits they make for companies like Benetton, Walmart, Primark, Matalan and Bon Marche in an industry globally worth at least $48 billion.
For the oppressed of Africa and elsewhere, the development of the Workers’ and Socialist Party in South Africa shines like a beacon. The new party inscribes on its banner basic demands for "publicly funded, free education from nursery to university" and "free health care accessible to all" as well as the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control of the mines, the farms, the banks and big business.
Campaigning against the myriad injustices meted out to women and their children is vital. Articles on socialistworld.net have exposed the scandal of domestic slavery and the fightback of Indonesian and Filipino women in Hong Kong, of women and their children in Pakistan. Others have pointed to women in schools and hospitals demonstrating great determination to fight back against the cuts.
Within major ’developed’ countries women, especially from immigrant populations, tend to make up most of the workforce in menial, sometimes dangerous jobs - sweatshops, electronic assembly lines, cleaning and domestic service. Trade unions are vital in organising campaigns and industrial struggle to end this super-exploitation in our societies. The modest but very real victories of cleaners in London in the past year have shown that organising and fighting gets results.
Clock turned back
Today’s world-wide crisis of the capitalist system hits all working and poor people hard. They are expected to endure austerity and hardship while the 1%, who own as much as the poorest 50% in the world, grow richer by the day. Cuts and economic slowdowns tend to impact most on the everyday lives of women.
Across the globe, incomes, job opportunities and state-financed welfare provision are dwindling - both for women and the people they care for. Zero-hour contracts and casual jobs are often the best the capitalist system can offer millions of women and young people, who face never being able to find a job. The clock is being turned back and each new generation of workers and poor is living worse than the previous one.
Not only in Greece, but across Europe and the United States, millions of people are dependent on food stamps, food banks or soup kitchens. Spain, Greece and Ireland have all seen a sharp reduction in birth rates since the onset of the crisis, as couples decide that a child is an expense they simply cannot afford. Stories of babies being given away by impoverished parents in Greece are a heart-rending condemnation of austerity programmes demanded by bankers and well-heeled politicians. Millions of children in modern, developed societies are facing poverty and hunger.
Even in Sweden, a storm of privatisation has wrecked the legendary welfare state. Care homes, health clinics and schools are being bought and sold as profit-making ventures. Next will come attacks on maternity and paternity rights along with other so-called reforms in the interests of cutting taxes for the rich.
The social and economic crisis has been accompanied by new attacks on abortion rights in various countries. Mass demonstrations in Spain against attempts to reverse progressive legislation, allowing abortion in the first 14 weeks, have shown the deeply felt anger on this issue and the preparedness of young women to fight. Socialists in Ireland have played an important role in maintaining the pressure for legal reforms that came into sharp focus after the death of Savita Halappanavar who was refused a life-saving abortion at the end of 2012.
Before this latest, very deep crisis, which has shown the inability of capitalism to satisfy even the minimum needs of the overwhelming majority in society, there was a period of triumphalism and gloating over the alleged lack of any alternative to this rotten system. This had followed the collapse of the Stalinist-run planned economies. ’There is no alternative’ was the watchword of Thatcher in her hey-day. Last year, when she died, many rejoiced that this enemy of working people had gone, but there was still a lack of confidence that the labour movement can change things radically.
The distinct weakening of the fighting traditions of the unions and the demise of the traditional parties that workers supported, had an effect in society as a whole in many countries. Earlier struggles on equal pay, abortion rights, LGBT rights, domestic violence etc. had meant many advances. Sexist attitudes in advertising and in the media, belittling women and approving violence, were less tolerated. Today the clock often appears to be going backwards on these issues too. On LGBT rights there have been advances in some countries, but vicious attacks on them in others.
Along with the cuts in public spending there have been cut-backs in the provision of assistance for those suffering from domestic violence, reports of which are on the increase in many countries. Socialists have been to the fore in combatting these trends and in highlighting the issue of domestic violence and getting it taken up, particularly by the unions. The role of class struggle in changing the consciousness of women and attitudes towards women were amply demonstrated in the miners’ strike of 40 years ago in Britain, as articles appearing in the Socialist this week recount.
The housing scandals in country after country affect millions of women trying to make ends meet and keep a roof over the heads of their families. Speculators and the super-rich are leaving millions of properties empty while more and more families each day are thrown onto the streets for want of a meagre rent or mortgage payment.
Anti-eviction movements see large numbers of often very courageous women involved. In Kazakhstan, they have been prepared to fight to the end, organising mass demonstrations and hunger strikes. They have been driven to such desperation by seeing the big banks bailed out by the state when they have been told they will have their homes taken from them. In Spain, bailiffs have been prevented by demonstrators (many of them women) from removing people from their flats and houses. And this in a country where, as in Ireland, hundreds of thousands of newly built houses remain empty!
In the US, too, homes have been saved by campaigns such as that in Minneapolis organised by Socialist Alternative. In Scotland, the iniquitous bedroom tax has been defeated by a mass campaign led by socialists. The movements of the ’landless’ and the ’roofless’ in Brazil, also involve many thousands of women. They have gained a new momentum in the context of the billions of dollars being spent on football stadiums and luxury accommodation for this year’s World Cup.
Wars and revolutions
Women generally outnumber men amongst refugee populations - victims of wars and civil wars. From Syria and Iraq to Sudan and Somalia, those fleeing armed conflict have nothing - no means to feed, clothe or shelter themselves and their children. Mass rape is common in the refugee camps and is also widely used as a weapon of war. NGOs, charities and United Nations bodies cannot cope with these human disasters. Sometimes they even become part of the problem! Wars are an inevitable part of life under capitalism.
Fighting for socialism is a matter of life and death. Building the forces that can lead to the successful transformation of society begins in individual countries on the basis of more and more people drawing the necessary conclusions about capitalism. We have seen, in the past year, mass movements reaching revolutionary proportions, with many women on the streets and fighting - in Turkey, in Thailand and in Ukraine. They have been struggling to remove discredited, corrupt regimes, but with no clear alternative to the rule of the bosses, the banks and their political representatives, their sacrifices will be in vain.
In many societies where advances for women have been made previously, reactionary governments are trying to pull them back by centuries - into the dark ages of the Caliphate for example. Others, like the regime under Vladimir Putin, now putting troops on a war footing over Ukraine, use the methods of decades ago or even of Tsarist times. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the ’Pussy Riot’ protesters, imprisoned for the performance of a "punk prayer" in the central Moscow cathedral, was put into solitary confinement after going on hunger strike in protest at "slave-like labour conditions". Prisoners have to work 17 hours a day and suffer Gulag-style punishments for minor ’misdemeanours’ - forced for out of doors for exercise in harsh wintry conditions and being banned all day from going to the toilet.
Fighting capitalist exploitation
Socialists fight every injustice in society, fighting around demands which show up the rottenness of the capitalist system and all its ’representatives’. Our programme on issues facing working and poor women is outlined in various leaflets, pamphlets and books.
One of the main tenets of socialists is that all women should have the right to choose whether and when to have children without financial constraint of any kind. This means adequate contraception, abortion and fertility facilities available free and on demand, as well as child benefits that cover the real cost of raising and educating children. Even assistance with conception and pregnancy are seen as a money-making opportunity.
It is worth remembering that getting a better proportion of women involved in politics or women elected to high office is no guarantee of more female-friendly policies. In Rwanda there are two female politicians for every male MP and a majority of women in the parliament, yet the country has one of the highest incidences of gender-based and domestic violence in Africa. The struggle against the subordination of women in society will take more than redressing the gender balance of representative institutions or even heads of state. Ask the people of Germany under Angela Merkel, Brazil under Dilma Rousseff and Chile under Michelle Bachelet.
In India, where women have held high office at state and national level, little has changed in relation to the treatment of women as second-class citizens. Recent publicity has been given to the trafficking of girls from the tea plantations of Assam to be sold into domestic service for high-born and wealthy women who accept it as part of the Indian way of life. The number of rapes in Delhi and Mumbai being reported to the police has doubled since the publicity given to two particularly horrifying cases that reached the world’s media. Public campaigns and mass protests have given Indian women courage to report to the police, but the crime is still rife throughout society, .
Reactionary attitudes to women’s role in society, the banning of books, as happened recently with a history of Hinduism, as well as an entrenchment of the caste system will have to be combatted even more vigorously if the right wing chauvinist BJP led by Narendra Modi comes to power in May’s election.
Although the political views and programme of candidates are more important than their gender, when it comes to the struggle of half the world’s population for fair treatment, it gives great encouragement to working and poor women everywhere to see the victory of someone like Kshama Sawant in the recent election in Seattle - a socialist immigrant woman.
She gained widespread media coverage for her powerful arguments against capitalism, Wall Street and the 1% and in favour of nationalisation of the major banks and industry and genuinely democratic planning. The focus of her campaign - the demand for a $15 minimum wage for all - was extremely popular amongst working people. For low-paid women, its full implementation would help to redress one of the major inequalities they face. Their wages would be raised and also put on a par with that of male colleagues doing the same work.
The hostility to demands for a minimum wage on the part of bosses and the politicians who represent them exposes the rottenness of the profit system. Fighting all forms of repression and oppression means a fight to the finish in industrial and political battles.
The only way to win the complete transformation of women’s lives, and the eradication of all forms of exploitation, is to struggle for an alternative to capitalism. Fighting together for the common goal of a socialist society would weld together women and men with the common goal of the emancipation of the whole working class.
As capitalism becomes mired in greater social and economic crises, hundreds, thousands and millions of people will become convinced, through their own experiences and the agitation of socialists, of the need to finish with the iniquitous system. Support for candidates like Kshama Sawant, parties like WASP in South Africa and the ideas and programme of the Committee for a Workers’ International will grow as the crisis grows deeper. Socialism holds the key to ending all forms of exploitation; it is the only way to develop a harmonious society free of wars, poverty, injustice and all forms of discrimination and inequality.